A toaster on wheels. A character out of the Pixar film “Wall-E.” A souped-up popemobile.
Turns out the white autonomous shuttles moseying around Colorado School of Mines on Tuesday morning were none of the above, as onlookers observed. Instead, the crowd in Golden was ogling the largest fleet of electric, driverless shuttles in the nation.
The Mines campus, known for its focus on science and engineering, debuted the free, nine-vehicle Mines Rover shuttle service — meant to transport the college community around the hilly school grounds and, eventually, into downtown Golden.
Colorado-based companies, experts and the college have been plotting the project for about two years, with hopes of expanding services to Greenwood Village, Colorado Springs and beyond.
“Today … we will write the next chapter in the world’s transportation history books at a time when we need a new chapter desperately,” said Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, during a Tuesday news conference on campus.
The cozy shuttles seat six — masks and seatbelts required — and bustle along a pre-planned route at 12 miles per hour. Lasers guide the way, responding to potential obstacles, and a digitally programmed map tells the vehicle exactly where to go and where to stop.
The program is so precise that Sharad Agarwal, an executive with Denver-based autonomous vehicle company EasyMile, said the shuttles will begin to wear grooves in the ground from traversing the same route repeatedly. The vehicles also can stop on a dime and have been tested to hit the brakes if someone dives in front of them.
The shuttle service also provides an unusual campus job for Mines students, who can become customer service ambassadors, riding along to ensure things are running properly. Sam Newman, 20, is one of them and in the rare case the vehicles need an assist navigating an obstacle, he has a set of manual controls at the ready.
“It’s like I’m driving a remote control car from the inside,” Newman said. “I absolutely love it.”
Newman described the ride as smooth, enjoyable and convenient.
Svitak has advice for anyone hesitant to board a vehicle that doesn’t have a person behind the wheel — or without a steering wheel at all, in fact.
“Next time you’re in the passenger seat on the road, glance around and see how many people are paying attention,” Svitak said. “Technology is always paying attention.”
There’s another benefit, too, Svitak said: The fleet is 100% electric, with no tailpipe emissions.
“This past weekend in Denver, we had the worst air quality in the world,” Svitak said, referring to the IQAir index readings. “This air quality is very much due in part to climate change and the emissions coming from vehicles.”
Colorado School of Mines President Paul Johnson beamed as a shuttle scooted by on Tuesday.
While the functionality of the transportation service pleased him, Johnson said he looked forward to innovation the shuttle service might inspire at a STEM-centered campus, including incorporating the shuttles into lessons and hands-on learning.
“We’ve got the brightest and nerdiest kids in the country here,” Johnson said. “These shuttles are the future. I hope they inspire our students to think about what innovations they’re going to do, too.”
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